Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls

Where to start! Living in San Francisco with my son who is mixed Asian, and looks noticeably so, with all the anti Asian hatred and violence happening, triggered by Trump and him labelling the virus as being “the kung flu’ and “Chinese”, hearing an SF school board member (now fired) opine anti-Asian rhetoric against Asian students, parents and teachers, and feeling that SF, for all its vibrant American Asian culture was not appreciating it’s huge and long standing Asian communities, I started to feel a bit down. The usual standard headers on Amazon, youtube and the like carefully stating they are behind Asian and Pacific American people. Day of healing, they shouted! Solidarity! Yet the solidarity feels kind of empty, a going through the motions, a nod because they have to, instead of a promise that this shit will stop.

I was reminded of Gwen Stefani, ’00’s darling, and her Japanese period. Karaoke bars had b-a-n-a-n-a-anas Hollerback Girl on strict rotation back then, with my friends falling over themselves for the joy of cussing in English. I felt uncomfortable at the time, but hey I was in Japan, a long standing resident at that point, and who was I to pull anyone on the uncomfortable rising stench of colonialism? Not me. So I fired up youtube and hit the play button on Harajuku Girls. It was oh so much worse than I ever remembered.

The video starts off with a group of adult Japanese women dressed as underage schoolgirls, kneeling subserviently at her feet, while Gwen sits on a chair, colorful and half undressed in some Berlin Burlesque get up. Gwen is the adult, these adult Japanese woman infantilized, sexualized and positioned by her as way way below her. They are shorter, greyer, on their knees, dancing like marionettes on strings while blonde white Gwen cavorts around authoritatively. Colonial mistress. Offensively.

The schoolgirl ultra short skirts are not Harajuku style. She is singing about Takeshite Dori and the youth subculture – conveniently ignoring the dismissed Japanese men who also populate it – it is a sub culture which thrives on color and whimsy, She is dressed in a kinky Alice in Wonderland get up, whilst the Japanese back up dancers are in drab, ignorable grey. She clearly hasn’t got it at all.

The backup dancers are blank faced, purposely clearly told not to express any emotion or facial movement, they are not portrayed as individuals, – more anti Asian stereotypes and tropes wheeled out to bolster the American white pop star’s ego and peddle more damaging myths about Asian women. There is a long history of fetishizing Asian women, from the recent Atlanta spa killings by a man who killed because he felt he was being “tempted” – his fucking word, not mine, right back to anti Chinese rhetoric of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens, and the Page act of three years after that, which ultimately banned Asian women from entering the country because it was feared they were engaging in prostitution and leading good white Christian American men astray. Yes the trope of the hypersexualized but docile Asian female has a long history, and Gwen, dear, you did nothing except reinforce it.

Back to Gwen…what is the first word she has the back up singers/dancers utter? Irrashaimase!.. ..which means “welcome to our store!” – more than a hint of females for sale there… to which she intones “supa-lover” which does nothing but reinforce that prostitution hint, that hypersexualization of Japanese women. Bitch, lets get this straight, you are plundering Japanese culture, stereotyping Japanese women, dressing them as dull children whilst also sexualizing them by cutting their skirts ultra short, adding frilly petticoats, and painting their faces like she imagines Geisha to be! It is the doll-like lips and cheeks of a rough approximation of traditional make up, not the neons and ultrabrights of the Harajuku scene! Heck even I managed an orange lipstick back then, and I hate brights! Can she fit any more offensive racist stereotypes in? Sure she can! She’s Gwennie! Hey, I know what she will say, it is a love for the culture, a homage. But we all know this is a cop out. It is the “I will do better” reeled out by sports stars when they fucked up on social media.

She carries on occasionally falling into a hokey Japanese katakana accent, not just for Japanese names or words, but for words that are English, claiming she is their “biggest fan” whilst appropriating Japanese youth culture in a way which is plundering and hurtful, a grotesque mockery, an impression, an act that should have gone out of style a hundred years ago, but hey, white people in entertainment have a history of such offensive shit, and it makes me sick. It makes me want to beg for forgiveness and do something, say something to show, hey, I am not like them!

The song carries on, claiming her “fascination”, detailing her picking over the bones of the scene to sell to a bigger audience, like it is some kind of compliment. It isn’t Gwen. It is offensive and it is stealing whist showing absolutely no respect for the culture that you are taking from. I am kinda embarrassed for her. By the time she taps on the shoulders of individual Japanese women demanding “work it”, “express it”, giving them permission, after all these blank faced jerky “what a westerner thinks Japanese women should be like”, I am having to reach for my cup of tea and take a breath. This is not empowerment, this is not love, this is not respect. It is pillaging, damaging stereotypes, and really, to be frank, Gwen needs to say something and apologize. I doubt she ever will even realize how bad this shit is, so I wont hold my breath.

The track doesn’t end here, it dribbles on, with Japanese women in children’s school clothes, but made sexy and short and revealing, kneeling and adoring and hanging on Gwen, the Great White Savior of the Harajuku scene. More of the same old same old tired hypersexualization whilst removing their power, their voices, their expressions, their color, what makes that scene such a slash of neon and life and youthful girlish fun.

There is not much else to say. I can barely make it to the end without frothing at the mouth, and so won’t. If we don’t call it out, and don’t name it as we see it, this shit will never end. As a small postscript, as much as Asian woman are fetishized and infantilized, Asian men are dismissed and mocked, none of it any good. Gwen isn’t wholly to blame for the armies of weaboos and their wifu pillows, but she sure didn’t help any.

P.S. People SEMPAI means your superior in age or rank. Not your crush. And a dutch wife (sorry sorry…I fear there is a dark etymology behind that slang…)is Japanese slang for a sex doll….hence wifu pillow being an extension of that…if you are going to do it, do it right.


      1. The Paltry Sum

        There is nothing experimental about this. Nothing. It cultural appropriation of a long standing Japanese youth scene. TO be frank her uncomprehending non apology over Harajuku Girls has her on the shit list for me.

  1. Ruth

    This is a brilliant, insightful review Paltry. Couldn’t manage more than a few seconds of the actual video but you have absolutely nailed its trite, racist stupidity.

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